Washington’s political map must be drawn in public

T o come up with something more partisan than Washington’s new voting districts, you’d have to splice together the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties.

The boundaries of the state’s new legislative and congressional districts are precisely crafted to keep incumbents in office and look after the interests of the two big parties. The Washington State Redistricting Commission and its staff even calibrated the map to protect officeholders from prominent citizens who might run against them.

One problem. As Peter Callaghan reported in Sunday’s News Tribune, the whole process was a blatant and shameless assault on Washington’s open public meetings act.

Under Washington law, you don’t get to shut the public out of public business. There are narrow exceptions, such as when a city attorney advises a city council on pending litigation. But drawing lines around voting districts is not one of those exceptions.

The proof of the commission’s defiance of the law is written all over that map. The document is undeniably the culmination of many decisions driven by partisan interests. Yet, as Callaghan reported, the commission rarely discussed those decisions in any detail in any open meeting.

That can only mean that the discussions were happening behind closed doors, with electronic devices or through staff intermediaries.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who chaired the commission, has acknowledged that “shuttle diplomacy” between its Republican and Democratic members helped settle differences over one district in the Yakima area. But agency officials – and the commission is very much a public agency – can’t exempt themselves from the open meetings act by splitting into separate rooms and passing messages back and forth.

The intent of the law is to open the decision-making processes of government to the citizens. Period.

There’s an argument – not persuasive, but honest – for keeping redistricting secret. Tim Ceis, a Democratic member of the commission, summed it up:

“If you wanted that discussion in public, we would never have gotten done. The nature of these types of communications don’t lend themselves to an audience.”

So let’s have that debate. Let lawmakers propose a measure to exempt the commission from the act, and we’ll find out if Washingtonians are OK with letting the sausage be made behind closed doors.

We’re not OK with it. There’s not much of greater public interest than redistricting – drawing the map that apportions political power and dictates which communities get to vote for which candidates. If public scrutiny means there’d be a different kind of discussion, so be it.

But if party leaders and incumbents think redistricting must be done secretly, they should make that case openly – not pretend that artful subterfuges create their own exceptions to the law.